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Suggestions for a Ph.D. - What is the actual job of a physicist?

  1. May 11, 2013 #1
    Hello everyone!

    It won't be long before I'll take my degree in theoretical Physics and then I'll have to apply for a Ph.D.

    I'd like to work on some fundamental Physics. The problem I have to face is that I actually know (almost) nothing about contemporary physics and so I don't have the knowledge to do an appropriate choice of the branch I'd like to work in.

    That's why I'm here asking to who is actually doing research to spend a few words on what their work is about.

    I'm interested especially (though not exclusivelly) in what I cannot learn reading papers, like the social and practical aspects of your work or what your typical day looks like.

    I'll be grateful to anyone who want to share his experience or give me some advice.



    p.s. I hope my poor english didn't compromise your understanding :)
  2. jcsd
  3. May 13, 2013 #2
    I'm in the middle of my first postdoc, and my "typical work day" is pretty much the same as it was the last year of my PhD, except that I have no teaching duties. I wake up, come in to the office, sit at my computer, and fire up either Mathematica or TeXworks (often both). I try to spend at least an hour a day keeping current with the literature, but the rest of the time I spend making progress (or not) on my research projects.

    I'm essentially completely self-directed at this point; we have a group meeting once a week to discuss work, but my advisor is much more focused on his grad. students than me, so my contribution to the meetings is typically just a progress report.

    Other than that, I go to seminars and conferences when I can (and when they seem relevant), but that's about it.

    My situation may be a little unusual for a postdoc, though. From what I've heard, it depends a lot on where you go; some groups will expect you to be self-directed, some will want you to work on topics they pick out.
  4. May 14, 2013 #3
    Thank you very much for your reply,
    I saw in your profile you're working on a very interesting topic!

    If I understood right your work is almost completely independent, this certainly have some pros and cons.
    Is this common for who is working in your field?
    Do you think more collaboration would enhance or slow down your work?

    You said the majority of your work is focused on running Mathematica, as I think it is for a very large fraction of theoretical physicist.
    I wonder if, although the time you spend on your computer is the most, the main breakthroughs are from physical and mathematical intuitions.
    How much is important the work on formal and physical aspects for your progress?

  5. May 14, 2013 #4
    I know of several other postdocs who are similarly self-directed, but being isolated to the extent I am is probably not usual. Part of the problem with my situation is that the group at the school I'm at is extremely small (just my advisor, myself, and two students), so I don't interact with many peers on a daily basis. This should be rectified next year, since I'll be moving my desk to a location with a more active research group (not actually changing jobs, just changing where I do my job).

    This isn't to say I don't have collaborators; I just wind up doing most of the collaboration over skype. As for whether collaboration enhances or slows down you work: the answer is both. You'll get exposure to more ideas than you would have had on your own, but it also slows down the pace of the research.

    I use Mathematica primarily because I'm frankly bad at Algebra and prone to sloppy mistakes. It's often easier for me to write a short program to compute the solution I need than it is for me to work it out by hand. Also, my research involves working with expressions that are extremely long (several thousands of terms), so many times trying to find solutions by hand is simply impossible.

    That said, the "main breakthroughs" don't come from Mathematica. They come when I'm reading some publication and stumble on a relevant idea, or when I'm puzzling things out at the whiteboard, or when I suddenly have an interesting insight in the shower, or any of a number of other mostly random ways. Mathematica is for after I've had the idea, when I need to prove myself either right or wrong.
  6. May 15, 2013 #5
    That's nice to read that, I actually got scared when someone told me he had mainly to solve tremendous integrals with almost no clue about physics!
    I really hope it's more frequent your situation :)

  7. May 28, 2013 #6
    Well, I'm an undergrad doing research over the summer, so I'll give you a very different perspective than a post-doc (from both my experience and what I've seen from those I work with)

    My group is entirely experimental, and we focus on condensed matter and spectroscopy.
    My current project is studying the optical properties of an interesting topological insulator.

    My day-to-day activities vary wildly. Some weeks I spend in the lab, using an optics set-up to take data (I mostly just sit at the computer watching the numbers come in, making sure everything is going fine, but I also have to change settings, do TONS of prep work and furiously keep my lab book current).

    Some days I spend in the machine shop, making a part I need for my experiment. I spend a big deal of time setting up the experiment as well, there are many many things that have to be just perfect before I can start. You really have to think of everything that could wrong.

    Once I have all my data, I get comfortable at my computer and use a banquet of programs to do data fitting and analyzing. Often I have to make small programs to perform a conversion, or to make the fit easier, etc.

    While I'm waiting for stuff, I do a lot of readings. My supervisor always has 1000's of papers and books for me to read so I always have stuff on my checklist.

    I can definitely tell you that I've learned so many handy skills that I never expected would be a part of a physicists job.

    The grad students in my group have very similar jobs to me, except they have more responsibilities (and bigger offices). We have weekly meetings to discuss our progress and sometimes give presentations about our work (I think there are ~15 people in my group).

    We even get a fair bit of travel time. Next month some of us will be going to Paris to use the SOLIEL synchrotron. One grad student is in Florida right now, and another was in Berkeley last week.

    Also, as an experimentalist, we get to work with some pretty cool toys that the theorists are missing out on. Powerful lasers, liquid helium, 18T magnets, scanning tunneling microscopes are all used often.

    It's a fun job.
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